Towards a Theology of (House)Work

So I’m a little behind in my reading, but this week I finally got to the February 8 issue of Commonweal.  There is an illuminating article in there by Jonathan Malesic which contrasts the American work ethic with the dignity of the human person, and specifically, the way work is treated in Benedictine Monasteries.  (You can read it here.)

The article is beautiful and challenging.  Malesic seriously calls into question whether it is possible to respect the health and dignity of a person in our achievement-driven society.  “No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints.  Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.”

I think Malesic has hit on an [important] topic, but his musings led me in another direction.  

There has been a convergence (the first word that came to mind was conflagration, and I think it is also appropriate) of ideas in my life lately, centered on what John Paul II called the “feminine genius.”  It’s not that I’m seeking this out, exactly.  I’ve been bombarded from podcasts sent by Well-Read Mom and friends, Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God, and a Day of Reflection at our parish, all circling this same topic.

Full disclosure: I haven’t done the background reading on this yet (the recommended reading usually includes Mulieris Dignitatem and JP II’s Letter to Women, among others).  So my understanding of the term is basically this: women have unique gifts to share with the world, specifically gifts which make it a kinder, gentler place.  Women, in general, are gifted at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.

This is a drasticly short summary, but I think it will do to explain the jump I made when I read Malesic’s piece on work and the Benedictines.

The monks Malesic visited in the New Mexico desert fight the desire to make work the center of their lives by means of prayer and their rule of life.  

I’d like to argue that we mothers have a similar tool built into our vocation to help us fight this tendency to overwork.  Swiffer?  Rumba?

So I’m a little behind in my reading, but this week I finally got to the February 8 issue of Commonweal.  There is an illuminating article in there by Jonathan Malesic which contrasts the American work ethic with the dignity of the human person, and specifically, the way work is treated in Benedictine Monasteries.  (You can read the article here.  It’s worth the trip.)

The article is beautiful and challenging.  Malesic seriously calls into question whether it is possible to respect the health and dignity of a person in our achievement-driven society.  “No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints. Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.”

I think Malesic has hit on an important topic, but his musings led me in another direction.

There has been a convergence (the first word that came to mind was conflagration, and I think it is also appropriate) of ideas in my life lately, centered on what John Paul II called the “feminine genius.”  It’s not that I’m seeking this out, exactly. I’ve been bombarded from podcasts sent by Well-Read Mom and friends, Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God, and a “Day of Reflection” at our parish, all circling this same topic.

Full disclosure: I haven’t done the background reading on this yet (the recommended reading usually includes Mulieris Dignitatem and JP II’s “Letter to Women,” among others).  That said, my understanding of the term, from all these secondary and tertiary sources, is basically this: women have unique gifts to share with the world, specifically gifts which make it a kinder, gentler place.  Women, in general, are especially good at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.

This is a drastically short summary, but I think it will do to explain the jump I made when I read Malesic’s piece on work and the Benedictines.  A jump, basically, to apply his ideas to my current life as a mother of small children.

The monks Malesic visited in the desert of New Mexico fight the desire to make work the center of their lives by means of prayer and their rule of life.  I’d like to argue that we mothers have a similar tool built into our vocation to help us fight this tendency to overwork and to value ourselves by our accomplishments.

Rumba?  Alexa? Wal-mart curbside pickup?

Nope.  Our kids.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Actually, my kids create nine-tenths of the work I do…so how exactly are they helping me to keep work from taking over my life?”

Think of a nursing baby.  He’ll spend some time laying on the floor, playing happily with his toes (hopefully!), during which time his mother frantically folds laundry, washes dishes, sweeps the floor…you get the idea.  But when that baby gets hungry, what happens? The work stops. Mom sits down, puts her feet up, and nourishes a little life. If there isn’t a cell phone or TV on, maybe she even nourishes her own spiritual life for a few minutes with some reading or just soaking in the silence.

True, this assumes there aren’t also a two-year-old and four-year-old pulling on her arm the whole time asking for snacks.  Or chasing each other around the house waving sticks. (Why are the sticks in the house!?) It’s almost never as easy at I make it sound, I know.

However, what if we took all these interruptions in this light?  Not “drat, now I’ll never get the bathtub scrubbed,” but, “Ah, yes!  Little child of God, how can I love and serve you right now?” Houselander would take it a step further, and say, “Yes, Jesus!  How can I serve YOU in this little person?”

Of course cleaning the bathtub is also serving…but that’s an essay for another day.

The monks Malesic visited have scheduled hours for work, and whether they finish the project or not, when the bell rings for prayer, they stop and go pray.  It takes practice, but they learn to accept that they must let their work go until the next work period. As Malesic puts it, “They get over work so they can get on with something much more important to them.”  That “something”? Prayer, and their relationship with God.

I don’t know any mother who can keep a monastery schedule day in and day out.  Still, we have the opportunity to put work in its place. Is a clean floor good?  Yes. Is it more important than reading to my children? Probably not. Is it more important than praying with my children?  No.

The Benedictines’ vocation is to pray.  That comes first, and everything else is secondary.  A mother’s vocation is to care for her children. That comes first, even if it means we have to drop other work (or play) to do it.  (Which I write as I tell my kids to leave me alone so I can finish writing this…yikes.)

It is in the discipline of walking away from our work, our productivity, our sense that we are accomplishing something earthly, to spend ourselves in caring for another human being, that we put work in its place.  Work is good. Human beings need work, and we are called to join God in the work of bringing order to creation. Yet we are also called to “get over” our work when our children need our help or attention.

Yes, it takes effort – mental, physical, and spiritual – to care for these little people.  It is work.  But it is work that, if we keep our hearts open, turns us towards God in a way that scrubbing and dusting and grocery shopping might not.  Dropping our menial labor to look into the face of a child is stopping to contemplate the divine, if only we can look with God’s eyes instead of our own.

(On a side note – this topic requires a part II, with some of the caveats which threatened to make this post a short book, and which I’ll get to soon.  I hope. It’s dangerous to make such promises in my state of life!)

And…we’re back

Re-opening the blog attempt #…

yeah, I don’t know either.

The whole keeping-up-frequent-posts-with-no-home-internet thing is a bit of a drag.  It requires discipline.  Which I sometimes lack.

But here goes again, anyway.

I went to my first writer’s conference this weekend.  The Louisiana-Mississippi region of SCBWI held its first ever KidLit conference Saturday at Sacred Heart Academy in New Orleans.  It was lovely.

The take-away:  Write for yourself, revise for your readers.  Thank you, Cheryl Klein.  

We also got to meet Angie Thomas, four days after her debut novel The Hate U Give hit #1 on the NY Times bestseller list.  Needless to say, she was glowing.  Though I suspect that is usual for her.  She was definitely an inspiration.  Yes, I bought the book.  No, I haven’t read it yet.  Really have to finish Octavian Nothing Part II before I take on anything else.  And that may be a while.  

I also got to meet Carrel Muller, who is the lower school librarian at Sacred Heart.  I want my girls to go to school there so she can be their librarian.  She is lovely!  She convinced me I need to go back and fill in all the holes in my folklore and mythology education.  And read do the same with my kids.  She also read a piece of mine (in the First Look part of the program where they read and critique the openings of several submissions), and it was exactly as I would dream of a children’s librarian reading it to little ones.  So that was a very cool moment.  Now if I can just convince someone out there to publish it…

Right.  So on that note, I could use prayers for persistence – to keep showing up at the page, and to keep sending things out, despite the piles of rejections.  Blah.

For those of you who are here less for the minutiae of my writing life, and more for cute baby stories, the lovely children are well.  I’ve picked up two Latin classes at JPG in the mornings, so they are spending the mornings with a friend and coming home for lunch, naps, etc. in the afternoons.

Just through May.  If the headmaster asks, you can assure him I still do not want to come on full time next year.  This experience has been a good reminder of where I want to be.  Home.  Period.  Which, of course, includes the library and the park.  But mostly home.

I thought our chickens had stopped laying, but it turns out they laid all their eggs in the bushes for a while.  Under the blackberry brambles, to be precise.  We found 24 one day, and 7 the next.  We have three chickens.  Three eggs a day, at best.  So it was a jubilee.  They seem to have figured out the purpose of the nesting boxes again, though.  Which is easier, but less exciting.  You can’t have everything, I guess.

We planted some vegetables and flowers last weekend.  (Thanks to Fr. Sam for the seeds!  The wildflower bed is well on it’s way!)  Hopefully there will be pictures…when I get better at technology.  Maybe next spring.  
Book of the week: This Is Not My Hat by John Klassen.  Hilarious.  It should be used in film classes as a study in dramatic irony, and in writers’ workshops as and example of how the pictures and text work together.  No redundancy – each does its own part towards a flawlessly integrated whole.  And it’s soooo funny.

I hope that there will be more posts soon.   And that is not intended as ironic, but whether it is or not remains to be seen.

Moving Tip #3

Have awesome friends.  We have some pretty fantastic friends. We made a few trips with the pick-up ahead of time, but our friends showed up Saturday morning with a fleet of minivans (and one awesome trailer) and we moved a house full of stuff in two runs. By lunchtime, we were taking a break and deciding where bookshelves should be planted. Our friends cleared the forgotten corners of closetrs, put together our massive dining room table, and didn’t complain about lugging our mountains of junk. They were jpyfdul and encouraging, and even offered to come back for more later in the week. Best moving asset: friends looks ours.

Moving Tip #2

Mark your boxes with crayon instead of marker. I love my Sharpies, of course, but crayons work beautifully (and you get to see the interesting texture of the cardboard) and marauding two-year-olds can’t use them on furniture. At least, not as easily as a marker. And if you’re like me, it’s easier to find a broken crayon on the floor than your one functional Sharpie, which you put in a “safe” place.

Cheapskate Moving Tip #1:

Best place for free boxes:  the hoppers outside Dollar General.  Other dollar stores run a close second.

“Wait,” you might be thinking, “did I accidentally go to a blog about how to change residences on a budget?”

No, you are still at the blog about my thrilling life.  But we’re moving, hence today’s topic.  The wild experiment of two (and then three) families living in one house is coming to an end, and we will have our own place again.

I’ve not been writing much lately, so now you may be thinking, “That is a wild experiment!  Why didn’t I know about this?”

Honestly, there has been surprisingly little to write.  I’m hoping to have some reflections, which may or may not be worthy of sharing, after I’ve had some time to reflect.  Right now, it’s all about the boxes.  And the Clorox ones are the perfect size for two stacks of trade-size books.  No lie – best discovery, after the box hoppers, of the week.  Since books are literally somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of our non-furniture possessions.

Only downside to these boxes: we snagged some that had dryer sheets or laundry detergent or something in them, and the back of the truck and the house now smell like whatever fake perfumey stuff some people use on their clothes.  It is not a smell I would want to spend the day with.  But hey, the boxes were free.

Squashing guilt

A true confession: we were given two spaghetti squash by a friend from church months ago.  I dutifully cooked one right away, very simply, and I’m sorry to say, most of it ended up in the trash.  The other squash has been waiting very patiently in the onion-and-garlic bowl ever since, tossing me sad, neglected looks almost daily. 
But then…I found this recipe:
http://www.skinnytaste.com/2013/01/baked-spaghetti-squash-and-cheese.html
Now I will admit, I did not make it with low-fat anything, but otherwise followed the recipe with my more calorific ingredients.  It was wonderful!  Goodbye unused squash guilt.  So in case anyone else finds themselves in a similar situation, try this.  Or go buy a spaghetti squash and try it.  I never thought I’d hear myself say that, but there it is.  It was that good.

Bread is never just bread

So I’ve been doing most of my own baking for a few months now (hard to justify the expense of inferior store-bread, when I’m just at home all day doing, well, you know…at-home things).  And as I was clearing up lunch yesterday, including Lucy’s half-eaten sandwich, it occurred to me that I was somewhat offended that she would blithely toss out a whole slice of the bread I had kneaded by hand the day before.  How dare she be so wasteful of my hard work!
Which got me thinking, of course, about how much food we throw away in our family, and in this country in general, and how little it concerns us.  And how much the great distance (both physical and psychological – do you think about the provenance of that beef?) between us and the source and manufacture of our food has to do with this lack of interest in the end that meets so much of our food.  (Today’s Latin lesson – manufacture = “made by hand”- how often is that true of anything anymore?)
What real connection do I have to that fast food hamburger, or even to the canned soup I merely heat up for dinner?  I rarely think twice about clearing those leftovers from the fridge to the trash can.  But it seems that the more involved I am in where my food comes from, the closer I am to the “ground” of the process, the more meaningful eating, really being nourished by my food is.  And the more I care how it is used.  Or not, as the case may be.
Another argument for slow food and the simple life, I guess.  Add it to the pile.  Maybe we’ll actually get close to those ideals some day!
And, all moralizing aside, at least I’m starting to make some really good bread.

New things

We have had a lot going on, so I thought it was past time for an update. We moved,finally, just before New Year’s. So we’re in an apartment in Baton Rouge and friends of ours are renting the house in Marrero. Not as good as sellng, but much better than living in two different cities. We have not gotten a washing machine yet, though, so we’re still imposing on Craig’s parent’s hospitality for that. The girls are starting ballet. Lucy’s first class was lastnightand Samantha starts later this morning. Lucy really enjoyed it and did very well, I thought. We’ll see how Samantha does. She im not as eager to follow directions as Lucy is. 🙂
Clare has been busy. She signed her first word at dinner yesterday, “more”. She wants to eat everything. She is also making a lot of progress standing on her own – and she likes to throw her head back and wave her arms around and roar, “Look at me!” And she wants to help put her clothes on, so she spends half the day trying toput different things on her head – socks, hats, hair ties, blankets, you get the idea. And she’awake now, so I guess I’m done.

Earth Bag Houses

For those of you we haven’t talked to in a while, this is our plan for the next several years.  Why would we want to do this, you might wonder?  Let’s just say we’re tired of spending $400 to fix our AC, and $300 for plumbing, and lining banker’s pockets with our mortgage interest, and wasting energy, water, building materials…it’s a long list.  But go check it out:

http://www.earthbagbuilding.com/

The hope is, once we sell this house, to get some land probably in Livingston Parish (between N.O. and Baton Rouse) and get to building.  If you know anyone looking to move to Marrero, let us know!